If it is team interpreting, why are so many flying solo?

August 1, 2016 § 6 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

The last couple of months have brought to the forefront of my professional environment a frequently discussed, but rarely solved, issue: team interpreting.

Many of our court interpreter colleagues in the American southwest are presently fighting a battle against the uninformed government officials of that state’s Administrative Office of the Courts, for the very survival of our profession as we know it, and as it should be. They are fighting for essential elements of their professional practice such as clear and coherent payment practices, minimum guaranteed work hours, the use of legally certified court interpreters instead of paraprofessionals drafted sometimes from the ranks of those who failed the certification exam, and to have people with interpreting experience in the decision-making positions within the state government.

Talking to some of them, I noticed another concerning policy spelled out in a written communication from a state government official to the interpreters: A statement affirming a puzzling rule of the New Mexico Judiciary Court Interpreter Standards of Practice and Payment Policies, indicating that there would only be team interpreting when a hearing was scheduled to last over two hours. This is the text of said “standard of practice”:

“For court proceedings lasting less than two (2) hours, the court may appoint one (1) spoken language interpreter but the court shall allow the court interpreter to take breaks approximately every thirty (30) minutes.”  

Two hours!

In other words, neither the quality of the rendition nor the health of the interpreter are compromised as long as the interpreter “is allowed” by the judge to take a bathroom break every thirty minutes. And this rule is not an isolated case. There are plenty of states that follow the same “standards”, and there are other state court systems where they assign two interpreters for a long hearing or a trial, but in the understanding that the second interpreter will be available to cover other assignments during the thirty minutes when they are not actively interpreting.  Once again, we notice these government officials’ total lack of understanding of the team interpreting concept.

In fact, the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) follows the same criteria in immigration court, where a solo rendition of a credible fear hearing could take all day without ever switching interpreters. It must be those magical bathroom breaks that the judge may allow every thirty minutes.

The problem, however, is not exclusive to the public sector, or to the United States for that matter.  I know many interpreters who will gladly agree to provide their services for a deposition without even asking about a second interpreter.  I have heard many colleagues in Europe and South America say that there is no team interpreting in a consecutive rendition.  Many of these colleagues do not even question the rationale behind such an assertion.  I guess the brain does not get tired during consecutive interpreting.

I know consecutive interpreting is as exhausting as a simultaneous rendition. I learned it the hard way many years ago when I made the horrendous mistake of taking an assignment to provide interpreting services during a series of depositions that were going to take place in Mexico for two weeks.  The pay was good and it was an interesting case with challenging vocabulary, so off we went to this town where a mining accident had occurred.  Besides me, the American team included three attorneys, two paralegals, two court reporters, and a camera operator to record the proceedings on video.  The days were long, sometimes over ten hours a day. On some days we would go to the mine where I had to interpret while climbing and descending inside the mountain. It was dangerous, and it was exhausting. There were times when by the end of the day I could not even move my mouth to utter the rendition. My brain had lost all command power over the movement of my mouth.  Of course I immediately understood why there were two court reporters: the hours were long and the work was very demanding. It was at that time that I made a mental note to always request team interpreting in all depositions and reject the ones where the agency, insurance company, or the attorneys were so cheap that they would not agree to pay for a team.

For the most part this policy has worked for many years. Sure, I had some bumps here and there, like the time when a financial specialist in a big law firm from the west coast sent me a check for one half of the time invoiced because: “…since there were two interpreters in the room, you just worked fifty percent of the time…”  Fortunately for everybody, that case had a happy ending. You see, lawyers who are used to team interpreting for a deposition know why they need two of us. I just called one of the attorneys, told her about the little incident, and my check for one hundred percent of my fee arrived two days later. The financial specialist learned what we do as interpreters and never made the same mistake again.

Dear colleagues, it has been proven that for quality and health reasons, interpreters need to take a break from the active role every thirty minutes or so. It is also widely accepted that during a difficult speech or a complex subject matter, the role of the second interpreter is key to the success of the rendition. A 1998 study conducted at the École de Traduction et d’Interprétation at the University of Geneva, demonstrated the effects of interpreting over increasing periods of time. The conclusion of the study was that an interpreter’s own judgment of output quality becomes unreliable after increased time on task. (Moser-Mercer, B., Kunzli, B., and Korac, M. 1998. “Prolonged turns in interpreting: Effects on quality, physiological and psychological stress.” University of Geneva, École de Traduction et d’Interprétation. Interpreting Vol. 3 (1), p. 47-64.)

The International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC) is the gold standard on working conditions for interpreters worldwide. Article 6 of its Professional Standards refers to team interpreting and it clearly states the following:

Article 6

Teams of Interpreters

Given the physical and mental fatigue that are caused by sustained concentration, certain constraints will necessarily apply to the composition of teams in order to guarantee that the work done will be of an optimum quality.

The minimum number of interpreters required to make up a team is a function of these constraints as well as the mode of interpretation, the number of languages used, the language classifications of the interpreters making up the team, the nature of the conference, its duration and the workload.

  1. Consecutive Interpretation
Number of languages used: Minimum number of interpreters:
Two languages into two         Two
Three languages into three     Three

Under exceptional circumstances and provided the principles of quality and health are taken into full consideration, it shall be possible to recruit just one interpreter instead of two or two interpreters instead of three.

  1. Whispered Interpretation

For a conference involving the interpretation of one or two languages into one other language and where there are no more than two listeners, whether or not consecutive interpretation is provided in the other direction, at least two interpreters shall be required.

  1. Simultaneous Interpretation

Teams of interpreters must be put together in such a way as to avoid the systematic use of relay. However, when there is no alternative to the use of relay for a given language, the team shall comprise at least two interpreters able to provide a relay from that language. In addition, if the relay is provided from a two-way booth, at least three interpreters shall work in that booth.

As a general rule, a team is composed of at least two interpreters per language and per booth. This is to ensure adequate coverage of all language combinations and to guarantee the necessary quality.

The number of interpretation booths is the same as the number of target languages, except for the case of two-language conferences where a single booth may suffice.

See Team Strength Table below.

Team strength table for simultaneous interpretation in booths

Number of languages used in the conference room Number of booths Number of interpreters (1)
One-language conference:

into one other language

into two other languages

… (2)

1

2

2*

4

Two-language conference:

into one of the languages used

into both languages used

into three languages (2+1)

into four languages (2+2)

… (2)

1

1 or 2

3

4

2*

3**

5

7

Three-language conference:

into one of the languages used

into two of the languages used

into all three languages used

into four languages (3+1)

into five languages (3+2)

… (2)

1

2

3

4

5

2

3

5***

7

9

Four-language conference:

into one of the languages used

into two of the languages used

into three of the languages used

into all four languages

into five languages (4+1)

into six languages (4+2)

… (2)

1

2

3

4

5

6

2

4

6

8***

10

12

Five-language conference

into one of the languages used

into two of the languages used

into three of the languages used

into four of the languages used

into all five languages used

into six languages (5+1)

into seven languages (5+2)

… (2)

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

2

4

6

8

10

12

14

 

Notes on the Team Strength Table

(1) This number shall be increased if:

  • the language combinations are such that the minimum number of interpreters shown on the table is insufficient to cover them;
  • the working hours are long;
  • the conference involves the presentation of a large number of written statements or is of a technical or scientific nature requiring extensive preparation.

(2) And so on: each booth working non-stop must have at least two interpreters. Moreover, in the case of relay via a two-way booth, such booth shall have at least three interpreters.

* An interpreter shall not, as a general rule, work alone in a simultaneous interpretation booth, without the availability of a colleague to relieve her or him should the need arise.

** One of whom must be able to relieve each of the other two. In certain circumstances this number may be reduced to two (particularly for short meetings or meetings of a general nature, provided that each of the two interpreters can work into both languages).

*** Under certain circumstances and providing the principles of quality and health are fully respected, this number may be reduced by one (short meetings or meetings of a general nature)…”

We can see how team interpreting is necessary in all scenarios, not just simultaneous interpreting. Moreover, in a way, court interpreting can be more difficult than conference interpreting because it is hard to hear what the speakers say and sometimes they are not very articulated.  For this reason, the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators of the United States (NAJIT) has issued a position paper that states in part:

“…It is unrealistic to expect interpreters to maintain high accuracy rates for hours, or days, at a time without relief. If interpreters work without relief in proceedings lasting more than 30-45 minutes, the ability to continue to provide a consistently accurate translation may be compromised… Like a marathon runner who must maintain liquid intake at regular intervals during the race and not wait until thirst sets in, an interpreter needs regular breaks to ward off processing fatigue, after which the mental faculties would be impaired. Team interpreting allows the active interpreter to remain mentally fresh, while the support interpreter takes on other functions that would lead the active interpreter to cognitive overload…”

Moreover, regarding Sign Language interpreting, the National Consortium of Interpreter Education Centers of the United States Department of Education issued a paper in 2010 stating the following:

“…Research has confirmed the physical challenges that sign language interpreters face when they work alone for long periods of time. The professional association has long been concerned that the proper ergonomic conditions, including the use of two interpreters who alternate interpreting, be implemented for the physical health of sign language interpreters. According to the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID), all sign language interpreters are at risk of developing some kind of Repetitive Stress Injury (RSI) during their careers, and if ignored, RSI can develop into a permanent disability… There are many things interpreters can do to prevent RSI and key among those is to work in teams…”

The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) also has a Standard Practice Paper (SPP) that reads:

“Team interpreting is the utilization of two or more interpreters who support each other to meet the needs of a particular communication situation. Depending on both the needs of the participants and agreement between the interpreters, responsibilities of the individual team members can be rotated and feedback may be exchanged…”

As interpreters, we have two fundamental concerns: The quality of our service, and our career. Team interpreting is essential to protect them both.

If we want to be around, working at the highest level in our profession, we cannot agree to working conditions where team interpreting is not provided.  We cannot turn our heads the other way when an agency offers a lengthy job with the expectation of having one interpreter.

As always, there will be mediocre paraprofessionals who will accept these solo assignments, offered by bottom-feeder agencies, because these individuals are not qualified to work for those at the top.  Unfortunately, we will continue to see how, out of fear or cowardice, somewhat good interpreters will provide their services to government agencies and direct clients whose only priority is to pay as little as possible without regard for the quality of the job.

The formula to success is the same one we apply all the time: Without wasting our time on the (hopeless) usual interpreter abusers, we need to educate our direct clients, government officials, and reputable interpreting agencies.  We need to explain to them the value of team interpreting and we must show them the difference. Those with a brain will buy the team interpreting concept immediately.

It is extremely important that we stop working for those who insult us with solo assignments, even after we explained to them the value of not working alone.  We cannot make any exceptions. I am never offered a conference assignment without team interpreting, and all federal courthouses in the United States where I have interpreted have always provided team work for trials and long hearings.

It is true that every now and then I get a phone call from an agency offering me a deposition, but it is also true that if I ask them about team interpreting, and they say that it is a solo assignment, I always turn them down.  Remember, you do not need many clients, you just need good ones.

I hope that next time that a court interpreter coordinator or an agency representative contacts you for a lengthy assignment and asks you to work alone, you will explain the reasons why that is not a wise decision, and if necessary, you will quote the position papers and standards mentioned above, I hope you will succeed in changing the mindset of those who as of today ignore these basic aspects of our profession.

I also hope that when you sincerely try as hard as you can, and you fail to convince that individual sitting across the table, or at the other end of the telephone line, you will have the professional attitude to walk away with dignity and turn down their job offer.  I now invite you to share with us your personal experiences with team interpreting.

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§ 6 Responses to If it is team interpreting, why are so many flying solo?

  • You are aware, as an interpreter, that having to jump in when someone gets stuck in English means you have to be on the alert the whole time and is much more tiring than simultaneous interpreting, where the text goes in one ear and out of the mouth. Yet the other day, a lawyer assumed I would charge less for this form of consecutive interpreting because I did not have to interpret as much!

  • Marj Evans-de-Carpio says:

    I always appreciate your blog entries, Tony. When team-interpreting a trial, the judge asked why we had two interpreters. I said that we trade off every 20 minute and that studies show that the accuracy of interpretation is compromised if we work alone for hearings of 2 hours or more. His response? “I want a study on judges’ accuracy so I can take a break every 20 minutes!” Then he pulled his reporter in, “and a study for reporters, too.” Never mind that we had been backing each other up, taking notes for each other, made one correction…we were both obviously engaged the entire time. It felt like he believed we were being coddled. However, I wonder what studies show about court reporters. Perhaps they should be working in teams, too.

  • valentina says:

    totally agree with you , Tony!Last week I received a request for my services as an interpreter for a deposition which was scheduled to last from 10a.m.to 5p.m.The agency as always offered me $150 ,3 h.minimum.When I explained that it can not done by one interpreter,the answer was : fine, we”ll find somebody else,who really appreciates good money we are willing to pay.The agency kept one idea in mind”: we need to find anybody to have this job done to receive a profit.The quality of the job delivered is the least of priorities for these greedy people

  • Excelent article Tony!
    I had a long hearing a few months ago. It lasted nine hours and I didn’t even had a lunch break. One of the attorneys asked me if I could stay “after hours” so they could be done. I told him I wasn’t available and I was supposed to have another interpreter with me. There were many Spanish speaking witnesses and they wanted to be done with the Spanish language that day. The attorney told me he had never seen or heard anything about having two interpreters! I had a copy of the team interpreting information from NAJIT and handed it to him…
    Later on during the hearing this attorney wanted me to make motions with my hands while interpreting because the witness was explaining issues with the hands… I had enough!
    There should be a mandatory continuing Education for attorneys to learn how to work with interpreters!

  • MARIA INES OJEDA says:

    Excellent article to help educate our customers

  • Luigi says:

    Tony, you make many good points. Over 30+ years I’ve heard the same comments from and about agencies and other hiring parties; it doesn’t stop. I’ve spent more than half my professional life abroad and have come to the conclusion that working as an interpreter in the USA is harder than in Europe or even Asia (although they are catching up unfortunately). And in my opinion the difficulties are due to the dominant role of agencies.

    It stuns me to read that a judge would feel free to question the presence of 2 interpreters publicly – and expect that the interpreters owed him an answer. In my opinion that should be regarded as unprofessional behavior if not harassment or intimidation that could have an adverse effect on the proceedings. [Full disclosure: I’ve never worked as a court interpreter and am ignorant of how things work, so take my ignorance into consideration.]

    So, yes, it is team work. And no, I am not off-duty every half hour. Plus, you are also paying me for all the time I spent preparing and for my expertise acquired over a long career, and for business-related expenses too, just like you do with any other consultant you hire. Some “clients’ get it … but mostly the real clients who are listening to us or faithful direct clients who hire us time and again, not the “clients” who are in the business of subcontracting.

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